The Importance of Online Interactive Tutorials

| 29 Apr 2020

A primary goal of higher education is to have students develop the ability to think critically. That is, students must be empowered to reflect on the course material, ask and answer meaningful questions, and develop the core of inquiry.

Well-designed online tutorials and virtual sessions can be effective in this space, as Education Focussed (EF) academics Laure Helme-Guizon and Joshua Capel discover. They sat down with us recently, to share the possibilities such tutorials can offer compared to face-to-face, and how technology should be at the service of teaching.

What are Virtual Tutorials and how are these different from Online Tutorials?

Laure Helme-Guizon – Virtual Tutorials are synchronous and somewhat similar to an in-class tutorial. The students and the instructor all log in at a given time in their preferred platform or software. The instructor shares their screen with the students and talks to them using a microphone while the students ask and answer questions using the chat feature.

In Online Tutorials, students go through formative assessments and online exercises in their own time. In all first-year Maths courses, there is one online tutorial due every week and each is worth 1% of the final mark. This is particularly helpful for First Year students as it forces them to work regularly and keep up with the material. Our Online Tutorials encourage students to engage actively with the material. Students cannot just sit and wait, they need to produce something. Also, everyone gets a slightly different version of the questions which reduces the opportunity to cheat.

Joshua Capel – This is because Online Tutorials provide scaffolding for students and force them to interact with the material. Our students are analysing data, applying their thinking to questions and communicating findings, which is heartening to see.

Laure Helme-Guizon – Online Tutorials are guided and excellent for laying down the groundwork. We use them for Pre-topic work: If we know that a difficult concept is coming up in lecture, before the lecture, we guide the students through an easy concrete example in the Online Tutorial, and then move on to the general case in lecture. We now know by experience that when we do that, it is important to flag it in the Online Tutorials - otherwise students are surprised that the online tutorial mentions topics that have not been covered in lecture yet.

What technology do you use for this?

Laure Helme-Guizon – For Virtual Tutorials, we use Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, which is the software recommended by the PVCE. We have used this in the past as well as recently in Weeks 1 and 2 for the self-isolating students and now with all our classes.

We use Maple TA and NUMBAS for running Online Tutorials. These platforms allow to randomise the questions so different students get different questions and a given student can re-attempt a question with different numbers if they want to. We allow the students to practice these online exercises as many times as they like and only their best attempt counts. As a result, they see them as formative rather than summative assessment.

Joshua Capel – Many of our students have been trying out Overleaf for writing mathematics over products like Microsoft Word because of its native web interface, but it can be hard for first year students.

Is it important for you as educators that technology and pedagogy marry well?

Laure Helme-Guizon – I like to use technology if it adds value, and not use it just because it exits. Technology should be at the service of the teaching. People may at first notice mostly the technological aspects of what we do, but the pedagogical design is incredibly important. For instance, the Online Tutorials are hard to design because the students do them on their own and need guidance, and designing maths questions that work well in this context is the hardest.

So context, learning outcomes and anticipating how your students will embrace it – all of that matters.

Joshua Capel – There is always room to improve and enhance Online Tutorials. Technology has its limitations - Maple TA can be a poor tutor – it will only tell students what a correct answer is and what isn’t. As an educator, I would like the software to be more open ended, intentional and with more directions.

How does this align with your teaching style or philosophy?

Joshua Capel - While we have different styles when it comes to teaching, we both believe in challenging students and confronting their assumptions about their understanding of the course material. I repeatedly remind my students that they shouldn’t be happy just being handed someone else perfect solution but focus on the process that gets them to a solution.

Laure Helme-Guizon – I agree with Josh. You want students to think deeply and not just walk them to a perfect solution. If you build space for student interaction in your class and let their discussion flow, some misconceptions will appear and you can step in to show them the flaws in the logic. It is important to explore what doesn't work, it helps understand what each theorem does and doesn't.

This is where traditional tutorials are effective as they encourage students to interact informally and develop their critical thinking. It can become challenging in an online format because student interaction goes down a bit. But there are ways to circumvent that.

What has been the feedback from the students?

Laure Helme-Guizon – Interestingly, we found that students in our Virtual Tutorials were doing just as well as when they were attending class physically. And we’ve had 100% engagement in Online Tutorials.

Joshua Capel - Bear in mind that a shorter term comes with its own unique challenges and we still need to see how the different components in a course work together.

Laure Helme-Guizon – We will be introducing something new next term - breakout rooms in Blackboard Collaborate – to encourage groupwork. Hopefully, the breakout rooms lead to higher interaction and engagement with the material.

What advice would you have for someone looking to use this teaching approach with students? How else can other academics apply these strategies in their course?

Laure Helme-Guizon – If you think some technology or course format suits you, I recommend that you observe someone who is already using it - to see what it looks like in practice, and then you can also discuss the pros and cons with them. For instance, you could ask to log in a virtual tutorial where the instructor uses breakout rooms in Blackboard Collaborate to decide if these can work for you. Then you should experiment with it yourself, but do not expect a perfect result the first time. You will probably need a bit of trial and error to get where you want to be.

Joshua Capel – A platform like Maple TA can be confronting in the first instance, but it has many more features than you will realise when first using it. Even now I am learning new things. So it’s good to continually learn how a platform works. You may find that the more freedom the technology gives, also leads to a greater freedom in student responses. Some types of responses you may not have predicted, so finding ways to actively test your material, on students or colleagues, is critical.

Laure Helme-Guizon and Joshua Capel spoke from their experience to highlight the importance of virtual and online tutorials to meet the rigour of mathematics at the university level, at our monthly Lunch & Learn on 29 April. You can watch a recording here from 00:37:12 onwards

Get to know your presenters

Dr Joshua Capel is an Associate Lecturer in the School of Mathematics & Statistic. He started his journey with UNSW as an undergraduate. It was during his PhD with A/Prof Jonathan Kress (now the Director of First Year), Joshua got interested in trialling different tech for pedagogical purposes.

Dr Laure Helme-Guizon is a Lecturer in the School of Mathematics & Statistic. She loves teaching and has moved around the world as a teacher in high schools and universities. She started as a Teaching Fellow at UNSW, and attributes her capacity for patience to her teaching experience with high school students.